As both co-owner of Pentreath & Hall and being a decorative artist with a commercial homeware range, I was asked by Pulse London to give a talk last Sunday about what it was like making the transition from being a maker to a retailer. So I presented the following and thought it worth sharing with you too.
I’ve been asked to talk about my experience of being a maker and how that evolved into then becoming a retailer. But the two have evolved quite naturally together over time, there hasn’t really been any kind of linear progression, it’s been more a case of just going with the flow. I’ll start at the beginning, from when the shop opened and then I’d love to share with you a few things that I’ve learnt over my time.
It was 2008. Ben, an architectural designer and interior decorator needed extra space for his growing practice and had rented the shop unit across the road from his office, he could put a few desks for architects in the rear but as it was a retail unit have a tiny shop space in the front. I was in my 10th year of working as a specialist painter and it was beginning to take its toll on me physically. I was working in a house on the street and we ran into each other outside the shop and started a conversation about me running it for him. We quickly agreed that this was a good idea and six weeks later Ben Pentreath Ltd (as it was then known) opened its doors.
From day one we have practiced the principle that we will only sell what we love. As it’s always possible that we might end up with a shops worth of product in our homes. And you couldn’t be working with a simpler criterion than that. Our strap line is ‘Good things for the home’
I worked in the shop Tuesday – Friday, leaving me three days of the week to develop and produce ideas for products and objects that I’d always been making but had never really had an end point to work towards. I just had to create stuff as I had done my whole life. It didn’t really occur to me that I could start my own product range.
Ben had always been really enthusiastic about my work and encouraged me to start up my own homeware range once the shop was open, if I didn’t have him as my champion, I’m not sure I would’ve taken the chance.
By the beginning of 2010 I was ready to wholeheartedly begin producing products and aimed to launch Bridie Hall at Home later in the year. On my birthday in September.
The range would include decoupage trays featuring antique imagery I had collected, scented candles based on the smells of rooms of a country house I had imagined, lacquered cases of intaglios from a grand tour I never took, faux coral, a chair, plaster models of geometric solids and obelisks.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the most pedestrian of homeware ranges but it included everything that I loved and nothing that I had seen before outside of a museum which is what mattered.
Slowly but surely Bridie Hall at Home has grown organically. Having started out at my kitchen table, the operation has now moved to a studio above the shop in Bloomsbury. And along with being available in Pentreath & Hall it can also be found in Selfridges, Liberty, and now has its own concession in Harvey Nichols. It’s fairly widely available throughout the UK as well as internationally – America, France, The UAE, Austria, Switzerland, Germany Australia….
In 2013, Ben Pentreath Ltd became Pentreath & Hall. Ben and I formalised our business partnership. I oversee the day to day running of the shop and am the principle buyer.
Together, to date, Ben and I have developed and produced a successful and growing range of lacquered and upholstered furniture, trays and mirrors. We’ve a range of patterned papers that furnish a collection of desk accessories, a collection of needlepoint cushions. A range of greeting cards. A lamp, a range of marbled paper lampshades and a classical cream ware candle stick that has been made in Stoke-on-Trent and is a project very close to my heart.
IN NINE YEARS OF SHOP KEEPING AND MAKING – WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
- The more you can do in-house the better – Learn how to do everything – to begin with
The beauty of my scenario was that, by running the shop, I was involved in every aspect of its growth. It was an on the job Master’s degree in Business.
I ran the spreadsheets, the sales daybooks. I worked on the margins. I leaned about how crucial ordering the right amounts of stock is – a small business cannot have all of their cash tied up in too much of one thing. All of this fed into how I would run Bridie Hall at Home.
We realised that the shop had quietly become quite successful and decided to set up an e-commerce website (this was quite unusual at the time for such a small business). Setting up this enabled me to learn about product photography and photo shopping, website maintenance and product updating. Which was then followed closely with dealing with image requests and product loans from the press. I could do all of this myself, which gave us a lot of control.
Wholesale is different to retail. After a couple of years of testing the waters and selling stock solely through the shop I decided it was time to step up my game. I wanted to produce more product for Bridie Hall at Home and sell wholesale. Wholesale is a completely different business to retail, so this was another education in, manufacturing, breaking down product costs and factoring in labour costs, making room for profit on a product that then needs to have room for at least a 50% mark up for the retailer, along with VAT. There is always a desire to want to fulfil even the smallest orders but the reality is your minimum order has to be big enough to make it worthwhile. For a maker, how time is spent getting a product to market is very important. Making as much as you can in the shortest period of time is the key.
- Perfection is an enemy – or is perfection fear cleverly disguising itself? A lack of confidence and the endless quest for perfection slowed the progress of getting my product onto the shop floor. It took me a long time to learn that perfection doesn’t exist and it’s more like a self-imposed block on ever getting around to accepting something is good and it needs to be let go of into the world.
I’m not saying it’s ok to compromise and not be happy with what you’re putting out either but a realisation needs to be made as to whether or not your expectations are too high that they make it impossible to move forward.
It’s a common problem. Perfect isn’t done.
- Personality – It brings a sense of uniqueness to what we do which is impossible to emulate.
From the early days of the website Ben wrote the blog, we started it because we were told the more words that were added to the website the more in favour it would be with google which would start to give us top rankings in sear That was the only reason it started but it soon turned into something else. Ben found his voice in writing and having such charisma and writing with such authenticity very quickly got him a book deal and contributes as a columnist for the Financial Times.
- Exclusivity – So much is available on so many platforms. Exclusivity is a good way to single yourself out. Most of the Pentreath & Hall products are not available wholesale because the cost prices are so high and as I’ve said before it’s a completely different business to retail that we’re still trying to figure out if they can exist together. So we’ve turned this into a strength. We can say, you will not see this everywhere, you will not find this anywhere else. Which means a lot to customers, they want to feel like they’ve found something that is unique and special. We can give that to them many times over.
- Collaborate – We’ve worked with the charity Fine Cell Work since 2012. Fine Cell Work teaches prison inmates serving long term or life sentences needlepoint. We gave them a set of patterns which they turned into cushions, we sell them in the shop and the inmates get paid for their work. This collaboration has been very fulfilling. I saw first-hand how it helps inmates after spending a day on a prison wing with them talking about the work and how it helps fill their time and fulfils them as people. Something very beautiful is produced which makes the prisoners and us very happy and should make the customer very happy too.
- Stumbling Blocks – there’s no point preparing for the worst but be aware a lot can go wrong and will go wrong and it will be what you least expect. We opened the shop the week the Lehman Brothers collapsed. On Rugby Street, where our shop is to date we’ve had – sink holes appear – closing the street for at least two weeks, ceiling collapse, a smash and grab, a murder suicide. Quite a few significant upsets can really shake you up. It’s quite an eye opener. It’s a lesson in really learning to roll with the punches, they can be quite frequent and the show must go on.
- Become a showman! When everything is available online. Give your customers a reason to leave the house. Push yourself with displays. I like to see things I’ve never seen before, especially in a time when everything is seemingly designed by algorithm. Take regular excursions to see what other shops are doing. We are a destination shop so we have to deliver. People come from all over the world to see us.
- Be reactive. Take advantage of being small and able to make small quantities of product. Ben and I designed a tea towel for Brexit last year while we were in the pub waiting for Ben’s husband Charlie to turn up. Another benefit of learning to do everything ourselves. Ben taught himself how to do graphic design, we ran up 300 of these and they sold out straight away. We literally make it up as we go along.
- Make and sell what you love, not just what sells. From day one we have practiced the simple principle that we would only sell what we would personally own and live with. I also only make what I love and would happily live with. Someone recently said to me that they felt my work had a really good energy to it. And that can only be because I really love it, I’m happy making it. I’m excited about either what I’m making or what we’re putting in the shop and this has to somehow come across in what we sell.
- Don’t be afraid to go off the rails. It will take you somewhere new. We’ve been through a skull and sea urchin phase, it was fun while it lasted. It’s good to shake things up and try new things out. You’ll surprise yourself.
- A shop front is the perfect advertisement to lead into other businesses. I have a homeware collection that is now available internationally and Ben with his architectural and interior decoration practice has flourished. He’s published two books on interiors and contributes to the Financial Times. It’s all come out of having the shop. Because of the shop, people have come to us.
- Spreadsheets are vitally important. Anyone who wants to go into business but can’t/won’t take the time to get their head around Excel is not going to succeed. Margins are what put food on the table and the bottom line of the spreadsheet is God. Sadly its not all about making nice all the time. Having a really tight hold on the turnover and expenditure will see you in good stead.
- Work on a 60% success – 40% failure rate. 100% success is impossible. Accepting there will be failures, they will be expensive is integral to the bigger picture. It’s important to take risks. You might make the product of your dreams but it’s completely non-viable – the cost price should be the sale price. It happens a lot. At least you did it and it exists. Something will come from this, like a nice photograph and a new chair 😉
- Prepare to work very hard. It’s a lifestyle first and foremost and then a means to earning a living